Abdel Fatah al-Sisi moved one step closer to Egypt’s presidency on Sunday as nominations closed, leaving the retired army chief and the leftist Hamdeen Sabahi as the only two high-profile candidates in the race.
Sisi is widely expected to easily win the election, which will take place on 26-27 May. He has more support than any other candidate, as well as an explicit mandate from the army, and he receives favourable coverage from most state and private media.
Egypt’s interim government, installed by Sisi last July, has portrayed the presidential race as a sign that the country is back on the road to democracy. “It is a very important step,” Egypt’s foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, told the Guardian, calling the electoral process “extremely free and fair”.
“Once we get it done, we will then move into the parliamentary elections which will help us finish the roadmap [to democracy] – and we look forward to rebuilding our future,” Fahmy said.
But among rights activists and opposition politicians there are concerns about the integrity of the poll. By the most conservative estimate at least 16,000 mainly Islamist dissidents have been arrested in an ongoing crackdown on dissent. At least three high-profile candidates from the 2012 presidential campaign have boycotted the race, complaining about the absence of free expression in Egypt, while the ousted president Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood was banned by court order this week from taking part.
A late challenger – the flamboyant football-club chairman Mortada Mansour – dropped out on Saturday citing a divine vision, after a brief and bizarre campaign in which he promised to rip up the Camp David accords and to force non-believers to practise atheism in their bathrooms.
Khaled Ali, a labour lawyer, the Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, and Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, all dropped out in recent weeks – with Aboul Fotouh highlighting the impossibility of campaigning in an environment where opposition is portrayed as treason.
Dozens of activists campaigning against Egypt’s new constitution in January were arrested while putting up campaign posters, and colleagues complained they were ignored by most media networks. Withdrawn candidates said they feared a similar scenario in the presidential poll.
When Sisi announced his intention to run for office last month, state television gave him a prime-time television slot to make a speech directly to camera. It was a privilege not afforded to Sabahi, who was allowed only a short state-made documentary about his career – a taste of what may be to come, analysts said.
“If we are talking about these elections really being fair and free, all the candidates should have access to equal representation within the media,” said HA Hellyer, Egypt analyst at the Royal United Services Institute. “And I just don’t think that’s going to happen unless things drastically change in the next four or five weeks.”
On Saturday a privately-owned channel announced that it would not air any shows by Egypt’s best-known political satirist Bassem Youssef, a prominent Sisi critic, until after the election – in order “to avoid influencing Egyptian voters’ orientation”.
So far the candidates have revealed few details about their platforms, though the contents of his declaration speech suggested that Sisi as president would prioritise the restoration of the economy and the prestige of state institutions above the implementation of human rights.
In a Sisi campaign press conference on Thursday, the candidate was absent, leaving a spokesman to release statistics about the 500,000 endorsements he is claimed to have received. Across town his rival Sabahi – a Nasserist, or champion of Egypt’s 60s autocrat, Gamal Abdel Nasser – gave his own press conference, positioning himself as a candidate of the 2011 revolution but revealing no specific policies.
Angus Blair, CEO of Signet, a Cairo-based economic thinktank, said he expected candidates to reveal more detailed manifestos in the coming weeks – as much to assuage overseas investors, on whose shoulders an economic recovery may partly lie, as a domestic audience.
“This is going to be an incredibly one-sided election, but I still think in the next few weeks we are going to see a real economic programme from Field Marshal Sisi in particular,” Blair said. “He is going to have to very quickly improve investor sentiment to kickstart investment.”
Many lionise Sisi for overthrowing Morsi last July following days of mass protests, and hope that a new era of strongman leadership will guide the country back to economic and social stability. Support for Sisi’s presidential ambitions dropped from 51% to 39% in March, according to research by Egyptian pollsters Baseera, though he still has far more support than any other eligible candidate.
Fahmy, the foreign minister, admitted there was no guarantee of longterm public support for Sisi. “From 1952 to 2011 we had four presidents,” he said. “From 2011 to mid-June 2014 we will have had four presidents. It means that Egyptians now are insistent on holding you accountable.”